Storm in Wadena

By the late summer of 1970, rock festivals were busting out all over, and local government officials across the country found themselves playing defense against them. They passed ordinances to make mass gatherings difficult, and they sought court injunctions against those that planned to go forward anyhow. In July, the same promoters who had put on the Sound Storm Festival in Wisconsin during April planned another festival for Galena, Illinois, but when it was stopped by injunction there, they picked Fayette County, Iowa, as their alternate location, specifically the little town of Wadena, population 251. They bought a 220-acre farm from a local family on July 20, and announced the festival for the weekend of July 31 through August 2.

The immediate reaction from officials was familiar to observers of other festivals, such as the one that had been held near Iola, Wisconsin, in June. “I am against the festival and I think it is an underhanded deal,” one Fayette County supervisor said. “They ought to keep the whole damn thing in Chicago.” He added, “We’re going to do everything we can to get the festival stopped.” There was hand-wringing over the bad example an influx of hippies would set for local youth. In defense of the locals, officials of Chicago-based Sound Storm, Inc., had said nothing about a rock festival to the owners of the farm they bought. All they said was something about building a resort, so the residents’ anger about being blindsided was legitimate. Iowa Governor Robert Ray said that local concerns were justified.

Reaction to the reaction, from the promoters, was also familiar: “Some fine citizens still don’t believe that our culture can get it together for a few days in an air of peace and mutual responsibility,” a press release from Sound Storm, Inc., said. “We’ve tried to rid ourselves of the shortcomings of previous music festivals in the Midwest.” They had arranged for fencing, medical care, parking, food, and security at the site, and promised to issue every attendee a garbage bag to carry out what they’d brought in.

Promoters also announced their list of prospective performers, which featured a mix of superstars and lesser-known acts, as well as local and regional bands. Among those mentioned in news coverage leading up to the event: the Who, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, REO Speedwagon, Poco, Tim Hardin, Buffy Ste. Marie, the Guess Who, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Rotary Connection, the Chambers Brothers, Mason Proffit, Ian and Sylvia, the Youngbloods, and Oz.

After the jump: Both sides bring on the lawyers.

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The Battle of Iola

(Thanks for stopping by this post about the Iola People’s Fair. If you are interested in the festival, you might also be interested in two podcast episodes about it. One is a conversation with an attendee at Iola, recorded in 2020, here; the other is about Iola and other famous Midwestern rock festivals of 1969 and 1970, recorded in 2019. It’s here.)

(Part 2; part 1 is here. Slightly corrected since first posted.)

The summer of 1970 was America’s rock festival summer. Little Woodstocks proliferated around the country, but where the kids saw them as opportunities to recapture the peace-and-love vibe of the original, local officials saw them as grave threats to public order. In the case of the People’s Fair held near Iola, Wisconsin that June, the cops probably had it right. The festival was haunted by heavy drug and alcohol use, as well as rumors of shakedowns, beatings, and rapes by bikers in attendance. With all that, what happened on Sunday may have been inevitable.

The 200-acre festival site was partly wooded, with a long, sloping field that created a natural amphitheater. The only building on the site was an old barn with a lily pond nearby, which had been taken over by the bikers for a campsite. It was the lowest point on the site, to the left of the stage area. Just before 7:00 Sunday morning, people up the the hill began throwing bottles at the bikers below. Amid the barrage, a few bikers mounted up and charged.

Despite the night of rumors, for many who were there, this was the first indication of real trouble. Scott Thomson, working for a company hired to provide stage security, remembers his boss sounding the alarm like Paul Revere: “The bikers are coming!” Paul and Bob Ericksen, who had traveled to the festival from Escanaba, Michigan, watched it all from their campsite. “Chicks were on the handlebars, shooting,” Bob remembers.

Three people were wounded, but it could have been worse—especially for the bikers. After the shooting stopped, angry attendees kept flinging bottles and rocks at them. Paul Ericksen says, “They were going to get their ass whipped.” The bikers fled, a few leaving their bikes behind, which were promptly set on fire by the crowd. A total of 23 bikers (17 men and six women) were arrested on the road outside. Portage County Sheriff Nick Check later claimed that the bikers had “thanked the pigs—that’s us—for saving their lives” from the beating they took.

After the jump: the rest of Sunday, the aftermath Monday, and what happened in the weeks beyond.

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The People’s Fair

The Woodstock Nation gathered over an August weekend in 1969 for the single most famous rock festival ever held. In December 1969, a single-day festival at Altamont Speedway near Oakland, California, was a downer from the start—too many drugs, too little security, and too much of the Hell’s Angels, who murdered a fan within a few feet of the stage as the Rolling Stones played. But as the winter of 1970 melted into spring, the burnished glow of Woodstock outshone the fires of Altamont in the memories of young people. Millions craved a communal, outdoor experience of their own.

Wisconsin’s Woodstock was the Sound Storm Festival, held on the York farm near Poynette in Columbia County, north of Madison, in late April. Local law enforcement officials prepared for the worst—rioting, looting, clean-cut rural youth enticed to vice by hippie provocateurs—but at the same time they took a lenient view of drug use and public nudity. As a result, there were only a handful of arrests, and the festival proceeded peacefully. The success of Sound Storm meant that somebody would try to organize a second festival. Unfortunately, it ended up more Altamont than Woodstock.

Rumors of a festival to be held somewhere in central Wisconsin circulated for weeks before the official announcement on June 17, 1970. Earth Enterprises and Concert Promoters International purchased a plot of land that straddled the Portage/Waupaca County line near Iola, about 80 miles west of Green Bay and 140 miles north of Madison, and would hold a “People’s Fair” over the weekend of June 26–28. Although county officials briefly discussed whether the rock festival could be stopped, there was little they could do. Most of the festival activities would be held in Iola Township, which had no zoning laws that could be invoked.

By Monday, June 22, promoters had begun preparing the site, and underground newspapers were publicizing the show. The Friday bill was to be topped by Woodstock veterans Melanie and Paul Butterfield, Taj Mahal, and jazz drummer Buddy Rich. Saturday’s headliners were to include Spirit, Ted Nugent and the Amboy Dukes, Mason Proffit, Buffy Ste. Marie, Crow, and Brownsville Station. Chuck Berry and Ravi Shankar were set for Sunday. On all three days, local and regional bands would fill out the bill, including Siegal-Schwall, Soup, the Tayles, Short Stuff, Tongue, Oz, SRC, the Bowery Boys (which later became Clicker), and Fuse (which included two future members of Cheap Trick). Not all of the scheduled acts played—Spirit didn’t—and some late additions did. Iggy and the Stooges played one of the weekend’s most memorable sets just before sunrise on Sunday morning.

After the jump, the festival begins.

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